Linguistics and English Language

Bilingualism and Developmental Linguistics research group

Speaker: Lindy Comstock (The Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, UCLA)

Title: Prosodic features of L2 and Heritage English: Evidence of prosodic transfer from Russian

Abstract: The ability of heritage language speakers to produce native-like phonetics is often cited as one of the most salient characteristics to distinguish these students from their peers in the second language classroom (Polinsky & Kagan, 2007; Montrul, 2013; Rao & Ronquest, 2015). This ability may lead to substantial friction between the two groups in a mixed instructional setting (Burgo, 2018; Leeman & Serafini, 2021). Therefore, differences in pronunciation skills have been a cited as one reason to adopt a unique approach to heritage language instruction (Correa, 2011; Kagan & Dillon, 2001). Yet this native-like ability appears largely constrained to the segmental level; suprasegmental phonology (prosody) may vary considerably between heritage and native speakers (Henriksen, 2012; Robles-Puente, 2014; Zuban, Rathcke, & Zerbian, 2020). At times, heritage speakers may even display prosody in their heritage language that is substantially less native-like than that of second language speakers (Comstock, 2018).

Native Russian language prosody differs considerably from English prosody, particularly in terms of the inventory of tones that may be assigned to words and the nature and placement of boundary tones. Despite numerous attempts to describe Russian intonational phonology, there is currently no model that can fully explain the prosodic features observed in the language. Odé’s (1989, 2003) has described Russian prosody within the framework developed by the Institute for Perception Research (IPO) and Yokoyama (2001) and Igarashi (2005) provide partial autosegmental-metrical (AM) models. Scholars generally agree that Russian prosody is notable for its strong macro-rhythm (see Jun, 2012) and inventory of bitonal pitch accents (Igarashi, 2005; Yokoyama, 2001). However, existing models exclude or underdefine accentual phrases and edge tones, largely because researchers have found it difficult to reconcile the perception of additional tones on syllables that bear no stress with a traditional understanding of how prominence is marked. Given that morphemes in Russian are inherently accented yet multi-morphemic words are assigned just one instance of lexical stress, it may be that the additional tones that have been perceived by researchers represent boundary tones between underlying morphological units, particularly those serving an important grammatical function (Comstock, 2023; Halle, 1997).

This study compares the intonational phonology of native English speakers to heritage and L2 speakers of English who have with Russian as a first language. Special attention is paid to the inventory of tones used by the bilingual speakers and their allocation of boundary tones. Substantial differences in the use of bitonal pitch accents and non-native like phrase accents and boundary tones that parallel the prosodic phenomena found in Russian words and phrases are observed in both categories of bilingual speakers. The perseverance of the same transfer effects in L2 and heritage speakers suggest the importance of the phenomena for encoding underlying structural information (Comstock, 2018).

Bio: Lindy Comstock received a Ph.D. in applied linguistics from the University of California, Los Angeles (2018) and holds two M.A.-level certificates in Russian Linguistics and Literature from St. Petersburg State University (RF). Her work investigates whether the linguistic transfer of prosodic phenomena between languages by Russian heritage speakers and second language (L2) learners is driven by the salience of linguistic stimuli or an understanding of underlying linguistic structure. Dr. Comstock completed an M.Sc. in applied linguistics from the University of Edinburgh (2009) with a master’s thesis devoted to Russian political discourse. Currently, Dr. Comstock works as an Assistant Researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Faculty Associate at HSE University. She lectures on SLA theory and practice and leads a program of interdisciplinary language research in clinical and social neuroscience that focuses on questions of normative and non-normative first and second language acquisition. Dr. Comstock has worked as a professional Russian-English translator for over fifteen years and has nearly a decade of experience living in the Russian Federation.


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May 23 2023 -

Bilingualism and Developmental Linguistics research group

2023-05-23: Prosodic features of L2 and Heritage English: Evidence of prosodic transfer from Russian

Room 1.17, Dugald Stewart Building, 3 Charles Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AD